HAVANA (AP) — A first group of Cuban doctors who treated impoverished patients in Brazil returned to Havana on Friday as both countries end a program that saw thousands of doctors dispatched to underserved areas.
Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel greeted 211 doctors who had worked in the South American country in exchange for hundreds of millions in badly needed hard currency given to the government.
They were among the more than 8,000 doctors that Cuba has recalled after rejecting conditions imposed by far-right Brazilian President-elect Jair Bolsonaro, who stipulated that doctors would need to directly receive their salaries from Brazil and be allowed to bring their families with them during their assignments, in addition to other conditions.
The Cuban government generally keeps most of the salaries of state employees working abroad as part of the socialist state's "international missions."
One of the doctors who returned from tending to patients along the Brazilian-Argentine border was 33-year-old Anisley de Arguelles.
"It's hard. I'm returning to my house and my homeland, but my heart is tight because I already had a connection with those people," she told The Associated Press as she stood next to the Cuban president. "We were doing very beautiful work that unfortunately will remain incomplete."
Some 40 flights are expected to bring back the Cuban doctors in upcoming days. Overall, roughly 20,000 doctors tended to nearly 113 million patients as part of the "Mas Medicos," or "More Doctors," program that began five years ago under leftist Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff.
Cuba announced last week that it was cancelling the program overseen by the Pan American Health Organization.
Cuba still has similar missions in 67 other countries, but "Mas Medicos" in Brazil was considered one of the largest and most important, linking the cash-strapped island wit South America's largest economy.
The end of the program signals a deterioration in relations between both countries and comes at a bad time for communist Cuba, which is facing its third year of slow growth.
Productivity is low in nearly every government industry on the island, tourism has slowed under the Trump administration and key ally Venezuela has cut back on subsidized oil and other aid.
Bolsonaro is offering asylum to Cuban doctors wishing to stay in Brazil and has called their work "slave labor." He has also questioned their professional backgrounds.
Those comments riled 32-year-old doctor Aliuska Rodriguez, who worked in the Brazilian town of Minas Gerais for two years but returned to Cuba on Friday.
"I don't consider myself a slave," she said. "We signed a contract before leaving."
All Cuban doctors work for the state and virtually all receive salaries that are well below $100 a month, in addition to food and service subsidies. Practicing doctors and doctors with particular specialties are not allowed to leave Cuba without government permission, a control that was lifted for other Cubans five years ago.
Participants in the program are also limited from bringing relatives with them, which critics say is designed to prevent doctors from emigrating.
Many doctors hugged each other when they arrived in Havana on Friday and sang the national hymn as they were greeted by officials including Bruno Rodriguez, the minister of foreign affairs, and Jose Angel Portal, the health minister.
"Cuban doctors have always been on the side of duty, even under the most complicated of circumstances," Portal said as he greeted them.
Cuba's president said the doctors were performing a humanitarian duty that could not be compensated with all the money in the world.
"The response we have given (Bolsonaro) is a worthy one, a courageous one that upholds the principles of the Cuban revolution," Diaz-Canel told doctors as they arrived.
"It was impossible for a government with a huge neoliberal arrogance to understand that people like you go to a country to offer health services, to truly be doctors out of duty."